Interview: how strategy and set-up impact time, cost and quality for nuclear programmes

Paul Halton OBE is Defence Nuclear Lead in the UK. Paul has 37 years of leadership experience in complex high-pressure environments, including as a Support Director in the UK Submarine Delivery Agency, as well as the Royal Navy’s Operational Commander. In this interview he discusses the importance of creating a high-performance and collaborative culture during the strategy and set-up phase of a major programme, and how this can impact time, cost and quality – specifically in the context of nuclear programmes.

Paul has 37 years of leadership experience in complex, high-pressure environments that demand high performance. He was a Support Director in the UK Submarine Delivery Agency, prior to that a Royal Navy’s Operational Commander and has been a Captain of a nuclear-powered attack submarine. 

The AUKUS pact sets out bold plans to develop Australia’s first fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and will challenge the nation’s defence capabilities for decades to come. To deliver the AUKUS pact with speed, both short and long-term planning, coordination between governments, organisational optimisation and a focus on both people and skills are necessary.  

Paul Halton2

Paul Halton Defence Nuclear Lead, UK

What’s important to get right in the strategy and set-up of a nuclear programme? 

The most important thing is to ensure that all stakeholders have a clear and unified purpose. This includes establishing the right commercial relationships that align with desired outcomes. While it's tempting to focus solely on transactional relationships, this approach isn't sustainable for long-term programmes like AUKUS. A support contract that incentivises long-term behaviours, rather than just short-term benefits, is crucial. 

How does leadership, collaboration and transformation impact programme strategy and set-up?

In the context of AUKUS, the programme needs to be looked at over a longer timeframe than other defence programmes. The nuclear sector has a long gestation period, and actions have reverberations over a very long period. Therefore, AUKUS requires a contracting strategy that recognises this. Effective relationships with industry partners and other stakeholders, underpinned by a strong commercial basis, are also necessary. 

How does strategy and set-up influence time, cost and quality?  

While it's common to consider all three factors at the same time, this can lead to a lack of clarity and focus. To achieve the best results, it's essential to determine the proportion and importance of each factor. This clarity not only affects the contracting and commercial approach but also the behaviours of the organisations involved.

A good example of how to achieve the right approach was a submarine maintenance period where time was the critical factor. Having this clear priority enabled a sharp focus on planning and conducting maintenance in a way that valued time over cost. Performance (quality) is always high in a nuclear submarine maintenance period. 

What should Australia focus on when developing nuclear regulation?  

It's crucial to maintain a realistic perspective on what's achievable and what's merely aspirational. Often, people become too focused on doing better and lose sight of what is actually possible. This can lead to inaccurate forecasts, churn and uncertainty, which only exacerbates problems in the long run.

What are your key observations in terms of lessons, and are they learnt? 

While quick lesson loops are important during maintenance periods, we can make mistakes by not recognising the longer timeframe and the major moving parts of these complex programmes.  

The longevity of nuclear submarine programmes is important to emphasise. What may seem obvious to us today won't necessarily be obvious in 10 or 20 years when similar issues arise and how we embed this thinking into programmes is crucial. This means focusing on areas like talent management, commercial strategy and industry relationships. By valuing the lessons of the past, we can improve the programme's performance in the future.  

Looking back on your career, what would you do differently and what would you keep the same? 

I have had the privilege of working with exceptional people on important programmes and wouldn't change a thing. Going forward, I believe it's essential to keep learning. In my experience, as a programme and portfolio leader, it's crucial to surround yourself with experts in their respective fields value their insights to ensure the best possible performance. 

For further information contact:

Paul Halton

Paul Halton
Defence Nuclear Lead ,UK